Cardinal O'Brien jumps the shark

Allowing same-sex marriage is equivalent to legalising slavery, claims the head of the Catholic Chur

Listening to Cardinal Keith O'Brien spluttering semi-coherently into the microphone on the Today programme this morning, I felt sorry for my Catholic friends. I felt embarrassed for them. Like the article the cardinal wrote in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph in opposition to plans to allow same-sex marriage, the interview was (to use his own word) "grotesque", almost parodic in its extravagance. The validity of any of the points he might have been trying to make was lost amidst the general hysteria of his language. As was any remaining credibility his church might be imagined to possess.

To allow the unions entered into by same-sex couples to be legally referred to as "marriage" rather than civil partnership would, thinks O'Brien, represent a violation of human rights equivalent to the legalisation of slavery. It would shame the nation. It would be "madness", "arrogant", a "great wrong", an attempt to "redefine reality" at the behest of "a small minority of activists". It would be the next step down a slippery-slope: before we knew where we were, he told John Humphrys, "further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerating even further than it already has into immorality".

Here's what His Eminence wrote about slavery:

Imagine for a moment that the government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that "no one will be forced to keep a slave". Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

When Humphrys pointed out that many might consider this comparison to be rather more "grotesque" than legally-recognised same-sex marriage, O'Brien was having none of it. The analogy was, he asserted, "A very, very good example as to what might happen in our own country if we go down this path."

I mean, really. What we are talking about here is replacing the phrase "civil partnership" with the word "marriage" in official documents. Calling a spade a spade. No more and no less.

O'Brien also makes much of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by which, he claimed, "marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women". On it he founds his preposterous claim that to allow same-sex marriage would be a "violation" of human rights.

The Declaration was written in 1948, at a time when in most countries homosexuality was still illegal (as, indeed, it remains in many countries even today). Gay rights were simply not on the agenda. It was not until last year that the UN Human Rights Council finally passed a resolution condemning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Nevertheless, the Article does not specify that marriage must be between a man and a woman. It merely asserts that "men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family".

Adding the words "or sexual orientation" to that list would neither destroy its meaning nor subvert its purpose, and if the Declaration were being drawn up today it is, I suggest, inconceivable that they would be omitted. Indeed, the use of the phrase "men and women" rather than, say, "human beings", doesn't strike me as an assertion of exclusive heterosexuality. Rather it should be read as a statement of sexual equality, reinforcing the following provision that marriage "shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses". "Spouses", note, not "husband and wife."

Over the past decade, gay marriage has been made legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden, in parts of Mexico and Brazil, and in six American states. In none of those places has the sky fallen in. The list is growing, and will continue to grow. In several countries which like Britain have adopted the "compromise" of civil partnership, the debate has moved on, inevitably, to the next step of abolishing the artificial distinction between the two.

More and more, civil partnership looks to have been a temporary solution, a way of appeasing traditionally-minded defenders of the view of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual union -- people who, let's be honest, never wanted the state to recognise gay relationships at all -- until society as a whole had become comfortable with the idea. One step at a time. The coalition's proposal is fully backed by David Cameron, who has rightly noted that the ideal of marriage, gay as well as straight, is inherently a conservative one. This seems like a natural time to embrace full equality in civil (if not religious) marriage. But it will happen sooner or later.

O'Brien's apocalyptic rhetoric, like that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, speaks of a Canute-like desperation to hold back the tide. It is as though he has given up on rational debate; as though he knows that the argument has already been lost. He should reflect on the damage his intemperate language will do to the image and long-term prospects of the Catholic Church in these islands.

In a recent message, Pope Benedict XVI contemplated the benefits of silence, a "precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive". Learning to communicate, he wrote, "is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization." Wise words indeed. Cardinal Keith O'Brien might do well to reflect on them.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.